Netflix’s 3 Body Problem Flattens a Singular Sci-Fi Saga

Liu Cixin’s acclaimed sci-fi epic gets the event TV treatment, for better and for worse.

Inverse Reviews

Science fiction has been mainstream for a while now. It’s been a long time since sci-fi was truly esoteric — the kind that was more science than fiction, and that explored ideas beyond our understanding. In a time when a general audience member has a passing knowledge of string theory, this has proven to be more and more difficult. But in 2008, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem got pretty close.

An ambitious, multigenerational saga that followed scientists who sought to fend off the slow invasion of Earth by a race of technologically superior aliens, The Three-Body Problem took its name from an unsolvable mystery in orbital mechanics — and was just as opaque. Its story kicks off with a compelling mystery, but mostly unfolded like a mathematical proof, with Liu presenting arguments and theories about nature and science before methodically showing off his work through long bouts of exposition. As dry as the prose (and as thin as its characters) could sometimes get, The Three-Body Problem was also a revelation: a truly cerebral piece of science fiction whose plot was largely driven by its science.

For this reason, Liu’s Three-Body Trilogy, as the franchise has come to be called, was given one of the most daunting labels in Hollywood: unadaptable. But darn it, if David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, and Alexander Woo aren’t going to do their best to try to adapt it.

A large portion of 3 Body Problem takes place in a mysterious VR game, which is more advanced than any human tech on Earth.


With their Netflix series 3 Body Problem (drop the “the,” it’s cleaner), the Game of Thrones duo and Woo gamely try to streamline and condense an epic, often impenetrable sci-fi saga. But in the process, they might have gone too far in the other direction. Through its eight-episode first season, 3 Body Problem moves at a brisk, often breakneck speed to convey a sense of spectacle and awe. But in the process, it sacrifices the thing that made Three-Body so singular in the first place: the science.

3 Body Problem opens with Ye Wenjie (a terrific Zine Tseng), a young astrophysicist during the Chinese Cultural Revolution who sees her father murdered by anti-science revolutionaries. When she’s later conscripted by the military to work on a secret base that may have extraterrestrial connections, her actions ripple through the decades. The repercussions are eventually felt in contemporary Britain, where Detective Da Shi (Benedict Wong, relishing playing a salt-of-the-earth dude, for once) is investigating a rash of suicides by high-profile scientists, many of whom seem to have been seeing visions of a mysterious countdown, or have been found playing a strange VR video game. The next victims may be a close-knit group of friends from Oxford (Jovan Adepo, John Bradley, Eiza González, Jess Hong, and Alex Sharp), who find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy that might be messing with the very fabric of reality.

Something’s wrong with science at the beginning of 3 Body Problem.


With Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss proved that they have an instinct for adapting dense stories into thrilling, watchable TV, and they show it again with 3 Body Problem, which can certainly be classified as watchable TV. Its opening mystery, as in the book, is intriguing and provides a great starting point for the series: Why are the world’s best scientists killing themselves? Then the next question: What’s wrong with the world’s science? But 3 Body Problem’s biggest, well, problem, is that it does not linger with these questions. Instead, this sci-fi series has a remarkably incurious attitude about it, moving from one plot point to the next as if eager to get to the big setpieces. Those setpieces, to be fair, are pretty spectacular — with one particular disaster showing that Benioff and Weiss haven’t lost their touch for creating gutting, jaw-dropping TV. But in the stretches between, it’s hard to get invested in a science-fiction show that doesn’t even seem interested in its own science.

To its credit, 3 Body Problem tries to remedy the biggest issue with the books: its paper-thin characters. Its core ensemble, the Oxford Five as the show dubs them, are all original characters that the show split up from the first book’s main character Wang Miao. 3 Body Problem attempts to flesh them out, giving them personalities and complicated intergroup dynamics, but the result is less than satisfactory. Apart from Jess Hong’s earnest Jin Cheng, a theoretical physicist who finds herself drawn to a strangely advanced VR video game, the rest of the core characters are barely more than TV archetypes whose main interactions are melodramatic romantic subplots ripped from daytime soaps. The worst offender is John Bradley’s Jack Rooney, whose brash, self-made millionaire is the kind of annoying TV character whose purpose is to make for “entertaining” TV.

The supporting characters are easily the more interesting, especially Rosalind Chao as the older, enigmatic Ye Wenjie, and Liam Cunningham as the thorny, cryptic leader of a secret organization employing Da Shi. And, of course, Wong is a standout as Da Shi, who is alternately somber, gravelly, and droll. Marlo Kelly as the secretive Tatiana also makes for an engaging antagonist.

Zine Tseng is the standout performance of 3 Body Problem.


However, despite the weakness of its contemporary storyline, 3 Body Problem achieves greatness whenever it takes a trip to the past. The young Ye Wenjie’s storyline proves to be the most compelling part of the show, and it always feels a little deflating when we’re away from it for too long. The culture of paranoia and dread of the Communist China setting instills in it the book’s original sense of sociopolitical anxieties while maintaining the sense of curiosity about scientific concepts that the contemporary storyline lacks. And Zine Tseng crafts such a tough and resilient protagonist in her Ye Wenjie that it makes the core contemporary characters seem flat in comparison. It almost makes one wish that Benioff, Weiss, and Woo made this show instead, and didn’t feel a need to make the contemporary storyline more interesting by introducing tired TV tropes and clichés.

Netflix’s 3 Body Problem might just expose the inherent problem of trying to translate a dense, ambitious novel into TV — it will never be quite as ambitious and smart. But shows like Apple TV+’s Foundation prove esoteric sci-fi can be made into TV that isn’t afraid of alienating its audience with more complex, cerebral topics. 3 Body Problem could stand to let the science speak for itself — and let its audience try to solve the problem of understanding it.

3 Body Problem premieres all eight episodes on Netflix on March 21, 2024.

Related Tags